- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 23, 2020

The RV industry is scrambling to meet soaring demand for motorhomes, travel trailers and campers since Americans have developed a new appreciation for self-contained excursions in the age of coronavirus.

That also means a lot of first-time RV travelers are learning the ropes at increasingly crowded RV parks.

“We are seeing a lot of newbies,” said Marcia Galvin, whose family owns the Normandy Farms Campground in Foxboro, Massachusetts. “There are a lot more calls for help than usual.”

The industry’s marketing research says that in an era of social distancing, camping offers travel benefits unavailable to cruise ships, theme parks and resort hotels. Like most businesses, RV manufacturers and campgrounds took a hit from March to May as COVID-19 prompted shutdowns of factories and national parks.

Now better times appear to be in the offing.

“For May, we were down 30% from last year, but since the first week of June, we’ve been rolling,” said Monika Geraci of the RV Industry Association. “What we’re seeing now is extra shifts to meet demand, as inventory was down across the country.”

Normandy Farms could not open until Memorial Day, and even now capacity limits require visitors to reserved slots at its four swimming pools.

While June business was down 10% from 2019, Ms. Galvin said her family, which has owned the land there since 1759, is “very optimistic” about the rest of the summer.

The RV sector has long relied on the opportunities it gives travelers to get close to the nation’s natural vistas, but now it has become even more appealing because it allows travelers to not get close to everyone else.

The most attractive option has been towable models, which cost $35,000 to $70,000, according to sales sites. Those smaller models also have been the most common on the lots, according to David Basler, vice president of the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds, which includes some 3,000 locations in North America.

“Anecdotally, we’re seeing just that from manufacturers, dealers and campgrounds,” Mr. Basler said of the rush to smaller RVs. “Dealers have had trouble keeping inventory on the lots and a number of them have told us that 60% of buyers had never had an RV before, which we think speaks to the comfort and peace of mind they can provide.”

To be sure, the numbers are not rosy everywhere. Sue Alkire and her husband, Jim, own America’s Best Campground in Branson, Missouri, a tourist spot sometimes billed as “Las Vegas for Christians” on the southern edge of the Ozarks.

“We’re down about 40% from last year,” Ms. Alkire said. “What we have noticed here this Fourth of July, though, is that people aren’t looking for activities as much as they are just camping and trying to spend time with family.”

Like Ms. Galvin, whose Normandy Farms has 400 spots, the Alkires have seen a high percentage of newbies at their 158-site camgrounds.

Campground traffic rebounded as soon as shutdowns were lifted, said Michael Gast, vice president of communications for Kampgrounds of America (KOA), which found April and May “quite devastating” for their 515 locations.

From January 1 to March 15, KOA saw a 10.5% increase in business from the previous year but that plummeted as COVID-19 began to rage. By May 17, business was down more than 43% from 2019, a figure that improved to a 14.4% decline since May 18, KOA said.

In other words, the rebound is happening but not complete.

“We aren’t quite back to normal yet, since most families aren’t in a position to make those long, cross-country camping trips that have always been so popular in summer months, and are a staple of our business,” Mr. Gast said, adding that closures along the U.S./Canada border also crimped business.

Still, the current signs are positive, with RV rental companies handling skyrocketing demand of 450% to 650% higher than 2019, Mr. Gast said. That comes on top of 10 years of record growth and a booming start to 2020 before the COVID-19 outbreak.

In a letter to shareholders and analysts last month, Thor Industries CEO Bob Martin sounded a positive note coming out of the hit COVID-19 had on the company’s spreadsheets in the third quarter of its 2020 fiscal year.

“Despite this being one of the most unusual quarters I have ever experienced, I am pleased to report that we were profitable and generated positive net cash from operations,” wrote Mr. Martin, who heads one of the world’s leading RV and motorhome manufacturing businesses that is located in the industry’s heart — Elkhart, Indiana.

“Much of that comes from first-time campers who are giving the lifestyle a try as restrictions ease,” Mr. Gast said. “We think it bodes well for the future of camping.”

That future also would be brighter, all sides agree, if Congress approves the Great America Outdoors Act, which has passed the Senate and is now pending in the House. The bill would “establish the National Parks and Public Land Legacy Restoration Fund to support deferred maintenance projects on federal lands,” it reads.

“And in many of these places the campgrounds haven’t been updated since the Eisenhower administration, and I mean that literally,” Mr. Basler said.

The long term impact of the coronavirus also could boost business, insiders believe, as more people work remotely and school openings remain uncertain in many states.

“That’s kind of the next wave,” Ms. Geraci said. “There are always a lot of people who want to travel, and now people who have never thought of RVing before see this provides them with freedom and the ability to control their environment. What we’re seeing is more people showing up at dealerships and saying, ‘If I can work anywhere, why don’t I work by a national park?’”

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